Conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, dies at 92

Greg Toppo
Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, is wheeled across the floor during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena on July 19, 2016, in Cleveland. Schlafly died Monday, Sept. 5, 2016, in St. Louis at the age of 92.

Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, died Monday at her St. Louis home at the age of 92.

An outspoken anti-feminist, Schlafly was an advocate of conservative causes and an early supporter of the modern religious right.

Schlafly rose to national attention in 1964 with her self-published book, A Choice Not an Echo, which became a manifesto for the far right. The book, which eventually sold 3 million copies, chronicled the history of the Republican National Convention and is credited for helping conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona earn the 1964 GOP nomination.

She later helped lead efforts to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed gender discrimination, galvanizing the party's right.

She told The Associated Press in 2007 that perhaps her greatest legacy was the Eagle Forum, which she founded in 1972 in suburban St. Louis. "I've taught literally millions of people how to participate in self-government," Schlafly said.

The Eagle Forum pushes for low taxes, a strong military and English-only education. The group is against efforts it says are pushed by radical feminists or encroach on U.S. sovereignty, such as guest-worker visas, according to its website, which describes the Equal Rights Amendment as having had a "hidden agenda of tax-funded abortions and same-sex marriages."

The Eagle Forum has about 80,000 members, CBS News reported. As of this week, Schlafly was still president.

The Eagle Forum called Schlafly "an iconic American leader whose love for America was surpassed only by her love of God and her family."

"Her focus from her earliest days until her final ones was protecting the family, which she understood as the building block of life. She recognized America as the greatest political embodiment of those values."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called Schlafly "a courageous pioneer in the conservative movement and an unflinching champion of many ideas Republicans have long held dear.” Priebus said Schlafly's influence "will continue to be felt for years to come.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump released a statement on her death, saying in part: "Phyllis Schlafly is a conservative icon who led millions to action, reshaped the conservative movement, and fearlessly battled globalism and the 'kingmakers' on behalf of America's workers and families. I was honored to spend time with her during this campaign as she waged one more great battle for national sovereignty."

Schlafly earned a bachelor of arts degree from Washington University in 1944, a masters from Radcliffe College in 1945 and a law degree from Washington University in 1978. She graduated from college while working overnight at a factory during World War II, the AP reported.

As momentum grew in the 1970s for the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly became its most outspoken critic — and was vilified by its supporters. She had a pie smashed into her face and pig's blood thrown on her, and feminist Betty Friedan once told Schlafly, "I'd like to burn you at the stake." She was chastised in a 1970s Doonesbury comic strip — a framed copy of which hung on her office wall.

"What I am defending is the real rights of women," Schlafly said at the time. "A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother."

Thirty-five states ratified the amendment, three short of the necessary 38. Schlafly said amendment supporters couldn't prove it was needed.

"They were never able to show women would get any benefit out of it," she told the AP in 2007. "It (the U.S. Constitution) is already sex-neutral. Women already have all the rights that men have."

Saint Louis University history professor Donald Critchlow, who profiled Schlafly in his 2005 book, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade, said the defeat of the amendment helped revive conservatism and helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

"What the ERA (defeat) did was show the right, and especially Reagan strategists, that a new constituency could be tapped to revitalize the right. It allowed the right to take over the party," Critchlow told the AP shortly after his book was written.

Schlafly was born Aug. 15, 1924, and grew up in Depression-era St. Louis. Her parents were Republican but not politically involved.

Her own activism was born partly out of convenience. With the country involved in World War II during her college years, Schlafly worked the graveyard shift at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant. Her job included testing ammunition by firing machine guns. She would get off work at 8 a.m., attend morning classes, then sleep in the middle of the day before doing it all over again.

The schedule limited her options for a major. "In order to pick classes to fit my schedule I picked political science," Schlafly recalled in a 2007 interview.

She graduated from Washington University at age 19. Her first taste of real politics came at age 22, when she guided the 1946 campaign of Republican congressional candidate Claude Bakewell, helping him to a major upset win.

In 1952, with her young family living in nearby Alton, Ill., Schlafly's husband, attorney John Schlafly Jr., was approached about running for Congress. He declined, but she ran and narrowly lost in a predominantly Democratic district. She also ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1970.

Schlafly earned  her law degree at age 51, graduating 27th in a class of 204.

Schlafly received an honorary degree at Washington University's commencement in 2008. Though some students and faculty silently protested by getting up from their seats and turning their backs to the stage, Schlafly called it "a happy day. I'm just sorry for those who tried to rain on a happy day."

Citing Schlafly's views about homosexuals, women and immigrants — she was an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, abortion rights and loosening U.S. border restrictions — protesters said she went against the most fundamental principles for which the university stood.

Schlafly remained active in conservative politics well into her later years, when she was still writing a column that appeared in 100 newspapers, doing radio commentaries on more than 460 stations and publishing a monthly newsletter.

Her organization has been split this presidential election: Schlafly supported Trump, though many board members and fellow conservatives disagreed. Schlafly endorsed the billionaire at a rally in her home city of St. Louis in March, CNN reported, despite the fact many other conservatives didn't see Trump as a true ideological conservative.

"I can remember 1980 when a lot of us didn't think (Ronald) Reagan was an authentic conservative," Schlafly told CNN in May. "Reagan turned out to be the best president of the century."

Schlafly said she backed Trump partly because he was the only candidate talking about illegal immigration, which she said was "the most important issue in the country."

In 2012, Schlafly and her son Bruce fought a nephew, Tom Schlafly, over the naming rights to his growing brewery, founded in St. Louis in 1991. The duo contended that juxtaposing the family name with alcoholic beverages would damage Mrs. Schlafly's conservative reputation.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sided with the nephew, rejecting the argument that a trademark shouldn't be allowed because it is primarily a surname, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last month. Schlafly's attorney, another of her sons, said an appeal was likely.

Schlafly's family was with her when she died Monday afternoon of cancer at her home in St. Louis, her son John Schlafly told AP. Schlafly's husband died in 1993. She is survived by six children, 16 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Contributing: Jimmy Bernhard, KSDK-TV, St. Louis; The Associated Press.